Sunday, January 29, 2012

At-Grade Tragedy: 3 Die in Sacramento after SUV Ignores Barrier, Drives into Light-Rail Train’s Path

Aftermath of yesterday's multi-fatality car crash with an at-grade train.
Opponents of Honolulu rail talk ceaselessly about the elevated guideway’s potential to block view planes. They warn that digging into the ground to build its support structure will disturb cultural remains along the line.

Some allude to their preference for at-grade light rail transit without offering specifics, so it’s virtually impossible to critique their ideas for a new piece of transportation infrastructure on Oahu. But it is possible to critique their preferred technology.

At-grade rail’s proponents rarely talk about safety. That’s because the comparison between technologies is stark: Elevated rail completely avoids cross-street and other traffic and therefore is immune to cross-traffic, while at-grade rail is in the traffic mix.

That point was driven home tragically yesterday in Sacramento, CA when the driver of an SUV ignored flashing warning lights and a rail crossing arm and drove into the path of a light-rail train. Two adults and an 18-month-old boy were killed.

Issue #1: Safety
At-grade advocates have contorted themselves into unbelievable positions as they attempt to explain why ground-level rail may actually be safer than elevated. The local architecture chapter pushed that view through an all-too-compliant Honolulu Advertiser reporter two years ago this week.

The reporter, who’s no longer reporting here, actually wrote the following in a January 31, 2010 story headlined Honolulu rail would be safer at ground level, AIA contends: “On a passenger-mile-basis, street-level rail had fewer reported injury incidents than elevated rail in all but one year between 1998 and 2007, based on FTA data.”

To reach that rationalization, the AIA compared the number of passenger miles in 2007 for systems with an exclusive right of way (12.6 million) and at-grade systems (1.9 billion) and found fewer injury incidents on a per-passenger-mile basis.

The AIA said safety data supports their argument that street-level trains aren’t too dangerous for Honolulu,” wrote the reporter. “The safety of street-trains is supported by a decision by more than two dozen U.S. cities to build commuter train systems that operated at least partially at street level since 1984, according to the AIA.”
Ludicrous Rationalization
It’s preposterous to suggest that street-level train safety “is supported” by those decisions to build at-grade rail in places like Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and others, all of which have recorded dozens of at-grade accidents. The more plausible reason is that those systems’ planners succumbed to anti-elevated arguments on cost and view-impact issues and subsequently chose ground-level transit.

The Advertiser story continued: “The AIA cites the relative safety of street-level trains as one reason why the city should consider building portions of the rail line at grade. City officials argue that the added safety of an elevated train is one more justification for the project’s relatively high costs.”

It’s true that exclusive right-of-way systems have experienced accidents and fatalities, including the notorious failure on the Washington, D.C. Metro a few years ago. But that system and Honolulu’s future elevated rail project are dissimilar in at least one significant fact: The Metro has human beings at the controls in both the trains and control room, and Honolulu’s elevated system will be completely computer controlled.

Driverless Safety
The safety of automated systems is proven and documented by now, as noted in a 2009 Engineering and Technology magazine piece. The first such technology was built nearly 30 years ago in Lille, France. To our knowledge, that system has never recorded a fatality – precisely because it’s separated from street traffic, mostly above ground, and because platform safety screens prevent passengers from falling, jumping or being pushed onto the tracks.

But the biggest distinction between Honolulu's future system and at-grade systems is the lack of interaction between trains and surface vehicles. As the city’s Director of Transportation Services Wayne Yoshioka said in January 2010:

“Let’s go back logically and look at this. You’re elevated. You’re totally separated from the roadway. You’re in a protected environment and completely separated out…. What cars are flying at that level above the ground? And what people are flying through the air at that level above the ground? As opposed to an at-grade transit that’s crossing active streets with active vehicles turning in front of the train, with pedestrians crossing in front of the train. That (comparison) doesn’t seem to make logical sense to me.”
Unlike the Sacramento family, Honolulu families won’t be able to drive past a crossing arm and flashing warning lights or otherwise stumble into an at-grade train’s path here. No amount of hype about at-grade safety can alter the fact that our system will be safer than what the AIA -- and apparently some candidates -- propose.

Yesterday's tragedy in Sacramento can't be ignored.

This post has been added to our "aggregation" site under the Elevated vs At-Grade heading.


Anonymous said...

How anyone can claim a mix of rail and street traffic can be safe -- or efficient -- escapes me.

It's like saying airliners should use interstate freeways and not get off the ground.

Anonymous said...

Looking back at that 2010 article, the comparison is very convoluted. Between 1998 and 2007, there were 7 fatalities for right of way vs 211 for street level. Yet, when comparing pax per mile, they only use 2007 figures. How does that make sense when one data set (fatalities) encompasses 9 years and then the pax mile is based on one year?

A more revealing question should be asked, how many of the 7 involved a collision between train and auto and how many of the 211 involved a collision between train and auto?

Doug Carlson said...

The whole issue of at-grade vs grade-separated transit safety is so clear-cut in favor of, in Honolulu's case, elevated rail that anyone who advocates building at-grade rail in Honolulu is blind to the implications. If and when rail opponents dare to declare their preference for this technology, they'll have to defend a choice that clearly is not what Honolulu citizens require.